Portrait of an Australian (ed. 6/10), 1998. Jonathon Tse: treasure collection of the John Oxley Library

Artists’ books are artworks that use the form or concept of the book as their foundation. They are often highly crafted, are handmade and/or hand bound, and published as unique objects in very limited editions. They use a combination of imagery and sometimes text to tell a story that unfolds by moving through or around them, depending on the form they take.

The Artists’ Books Collection at State Library of Queensland is one of the largest publicly available artists’ books collections in the country, consisting of over 1,700 works. The collection includes works by international artists, reflecting the genre’s international origins, but it is the focus on Australian artists reflecting the Australian experience that makes it a truly significant collection.

Page from Portrait of an Australian (ed. 6/10), 1998. Jonathon Tse. Call no. ALAAB TSE. John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland.

Page from Portrait of an Australian (ed. 6/10), 1998. Jonathon Tse. Call no. ALAAB TSE. John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland.

Jonathon Tse’s work, Portrait of an Australian, may seem a simple, even humble example of an artist’s book, however the physical construction and the way in which the concept and narrative is conveyed places it among the very best.

Born in Hong Kong in 1967, Jonathon’s family immigrated to Australia when he was six years old, a life-changing event for the young boy. The idea for the work came about when Jonathon’s mother gave him a box of old photographs many years later.  First producing a series of postcards reflecting on his experience as an immigrant, Jonathon settled on the form of a passport as the perfect vehicle, inextricably linking the images to travel, and the sequential pages providing the opportunity to tell his personal story.

Front cover and page from Portrait of an Australian (ed. 6/10), 1998. Jonathon Tse. Call no. ALAAB TSE. John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland.

The work is completely handmade and exquisitely hand printed using silkscreen printing techniques. The gold lettering on the front cover instantly positions it as a passport, although it is clearly a facsimile. The word ‘passport’ is replaced with the word ‘immigrant’ and the coat of arms has been recreated but altered, replacing the symbols for each state with motifs emblematic of Jonathon’s life story. Replica visa and immigration stamps appear throughout, along with some English words and Chinese characters as text. The photographs taken by Jonathan’s father remain the focus of the work.

Together these elements tell the story of the journey Jonathon’s family undertook, leaving behind their wider family network, community and culture and adapting to life in Australia in the early 1970s including learning English and being the first Chinese students at their new school. The work was produced during the rise of Pauline Hanson’s One Nation political party, which specifically targeted Asians as the cause of society’s many ills, providing a potent backdrop – referenced near the end of the passport.

The result is a powerful meditation on the migrant experience, told through the eyes of a child and challenging the assumptions of what it meant to be Australian.

Anna Thurgood, Engagement Officer, Collection Engagement, State Library of Queensland

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